You Can Fit Restaurant Fare Into a Healthy Lifestyle

Perhaps it was your first date or your 20th wedding anniversary, but chances are you spent it in a restaurant–where you go to celebrate the big events of life, to relax with friends and family, or to grab a bite when everyday food preparation doesn’t fit your busy lifestyle.
The average American adult purchases a meal or a snack five times a week from a restaurant, and 49 cents of every food dollar is spent in a restaurant setting, according to the National Restaurant Association (NRA).


The restaurant industry is responding to consumer interest for more healthful options. In its annual trend survey, the NRA asked 1,800 leading national chefs to identify top restaurant trends. Six of the top 20 trends identified for 2012 were related to health and nutrition, including more healthful offerings such as whole-grain breads, quinoa, hummus, bite-sized hors d’oeuvres, smaller portions, and mini desserts.

Children’s menus may see the biggest health-lift, with more fruits and veggies, and oven-baked chicken with plain potatoes in place of deep-fried nuggets and French Fries.

“You’ll continue to see more healthful options in all restaurant sectors, from quick service to fine dining,” says Joy Dubost, Ph.D., R.D., Director of Nutrition and Healthy Living at the National Restaurant Association. “Consumers are demanding them and more importantly, sales are strong–assuring us that these trends are here to stay. The idea that we can’t eat out healthfully is old-school; as long as we are mindful of our selections, there are now many options.”

In fact, many restaurants now offer “lighter” fare by serving selected calorie (usually 600) meals, such as Applebee’s Roasted Garlic Sirloin or Sizzling Chili Lime Chicken.


But indulging in too many meals away from home is taking a toll on our health. A body of research shows a link between the frequency of eating meals away from home–especially at fast food restaurants–and higher levels of body fat and biomedical markers for chronic diseases.

On a per 1,000-calorie basis, meals eaten outside the home have fewer servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, more sodium, and higher levels of saturated fat than meals prepared at home.

“Restaurants are a high-risk food environment, even for those who are not trying to lose weight,” says Gayle Timmerman Ph.D., R.N., Associate Dean, School of Nursing, University of Texas at Austin.

In a study of 71 participants published in the November 2006 issue of Western Journal of Nursing Research, she found that dieters–actively seeking to lose weight–consumed significantly more calories (226 to 253 calories) and more fat (10.4 to 16 grams) on days that included restaurant meals.

Another study published in the December 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association examined weight status and health biomarkers related to the food source for family dinners among 723 adolescent/parent pairs. The odds of being overweight or obese were considerably greater when one or more dinners per week were sourced with foods prepared outside the home, with almost double the odds, in addition to significantly higher metabolic risk factors, for families who obtained dinner from fast-food restaurants.

Fit restaurant fare into your healthy lifestyle. Let’s face it; given our busy lifestyles, people are not going to stop eating out.
“Eating in restaurants is part of our lifestyle, and telling people to not eat out or even to eat out less frequently is unrealistic advice,” says Timmerman. “What people need are specific strategies and skills to overcome the barriers to healthful eating in the restaurant environment.”

Practicing mindful eating may be one such effective strategy, according to a study published in the February 2012 Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Researchers found that mindful-eating techniques, which focus on bringing full attention to the eating experience, combined with reducing calorie and fat intake were effective at weight management. The participants in the intervention group on average lost 1.7 kilograms and ate 297 fewer calories per day at the end of the six-week intervention.

Eating in restaurants is and will continue to be part of our social fabric. By using EN’s healthful eating strategies you can enjoy restaurant meals without compromising your health. We asked Timmerman and other nutrition experts to share some of their best strategies for dining out healthfully:

1. Ask for a take-home box before you start eating and get half of the food off the table. That way, you won’t be tempted to finish it.

2. Avoid “unloved” calories, unless they’re fruits and vegetables. For example, if your meal typically comes with a side you feel neutral about–say, white rice–ask for a substitute that you do like so you don’t mindlessly eat extra calories just because they’re on your plate.

3. Order as many add-ons as you can “on the side.” Gravies, salad dressing, and sauces are usually calorie-dense. If you control your own portion, you may be satisfied with less than what’s typically served.

4. Be mindful of beverages. Sugary drinks and alcoholic beverages are usually just add-on calories. Research shows people do not compensate for beverage calories by eating less food during or after the meal.

5. Look for easy substitutes. The “eat this, not that” mindset is a useful tool when eating out. If you want to eat steak, choose the leaner sirloin rather than the porterhouse, or go for the black beans vs. the refried beans on the taco platter. Look for lower calorie cooking techniques, such as broiled, baked or grilled over deep-fried preparations.

6. Adjust your portion size. Try sharing an entree or having a salad or appetizer as a main course. If you really want a treat, perhaps just a taste will do; share French fries or some cheesecake with the whole table.

7. Plan ahead. Since most chains now provide nutrition information, you can find the best choices on the menu on the restaurant’s website.

8. Practice mindful eating. Focus on eating slowly and enjoying the moment. If you pay attention to the food and the whole experience of eating, you are likely to feel more satisfied, even if you’re eating less food.

9. Rely on Healthy Dining Finder. Finding the healthiest menu choices need not be complicated. The website helps customers quickly find restaurants that meet dietitian-approved criteria for healthy restaurant fare.

Article obtained from:

The Chicago Tribune

By Sylvia M. Geiger, M.S., R.D., Environmental Nutrition Newsletter Premium Health News Service

May 9, 2012